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Thursday, 08 August 2013 12:19

Trusty Companion: The venerable lap desk

Written by  Jeff Chipetine
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August 2013 -

A pilot's lap desk is more than just a tool of the trade.

My folding lap desk started as fine brushed aluminum, but these days is showing some scars and scuffs. Soldiering on, it continues to serve the mission for which it was so well designed.

The dark ages

My "student days" attempt at some method of organizing personal cockpit clutter involved a kneeboard fastened to my thigh with the airborne version of a portable tourniquet.

With comfort just an afterthought, the designer of the thigh-clamp kneeboard system doubtlessly had his eureka moment while in convalescence from a sprain held in compression by an Ace bandage. Thus he engineered two options for the wearer: Very Tight, and Ouch.

With my left leg swollen below the thigh and my kneeboard crammed with all manner of pens, parallel rules, E6B, flashlight and preprinted flight plan forms, I was sometimes able to squeeze in a sectional chart—if I folded it tightly enough so that James Bond could use it as a weapon.

Those were great days. Early training earned me a private pilot certificate and a peculiar one-half-legged suntan. It took seven months, 43 flight hours, two CFIs and no fewer than three different brands of aircraft.

In the 150 trainer, the yoke would give the kneeboard and the knee to which it was attached an occasional bash depending on how uncomfortable a seating position you were willing to accept.

In the 80 hp Katana, I acquired that unique suntan mentioned above, and a constant welt on the outside of my left wrist which otherwise insulated the stick from where the sharp aluminum edge would rest. I also developed what my CFI called the character trait of patience as we both waited for the airplane to reach rotate speed and then again to climb high enough to avoid the 650-foot Northport stacks that were only nine miles to the north of the runway threshold.

The kneeboard was a painful tool in all but the cavernous Beech Sierra (which, for all I know, is still up there training another hopeful at the speed of blight).

With a fresh private pilot certificate in my pocket, I went out soon after to take my wife on the first of what has been many trips to wonderful places. (Thank you, Lisa, for your ongoing, and sometimes unearned, trust).

Both training and line rental aircraft were ancient, clapped out and leaked as much oil as they burned gasoline (only a mild exaggeration). The airplane I had rented for our first trip had a puddle of oil under it that should have caught the attention of the EPA, and a check of the dipstick (the one for the engine, not the hopeful PIC) confirmed that the puddle had recently been resident in the crankcase of our prospective wings. Back to the FBO, a second set of keys for a second airplane, and another dead aircraft.

We did not fly that day, and I despaired in the thought that all the training had been for nothing if one could not rent a decent airplane in which to squire his wife about on a sunny Sunday. This was actually a good thing as it prompted us to search for an aircraft of our own that we could maintain to a higher standard.

All-too-frequent IMC

We live on Long Island in New York. It's a maritime climate with the usual bouts of maritime weather that includes fogs, low ceilings and showers that can span the course of days to weeks depending on the season.

I had our "new" 25-year-old Cessna 172 for about a week before it became apparent that an instrument rating would be required if I were to be able to both enjoy the airplane and get back for work following my day off. When Lisa picked me up at the train station after my third flight (I'd left the airplane in Westchester when the weather went down the tubes faster than a speeding bullet), the decision to begin training for the instrument ticket had been reached.

The Skyhawk was a terrific airplane. I could leave my stuff in it and had room for a friend or two if we were careful with the fuel and OATs. Not too expensive to fly or maintain, either. Owning the Skyhawk also allowed me to schedule at will for my IFR training.

Not wanting to merely pass, but to try for genuine proficiency, a recommendation came my way of a guy named David Zeidler. Those that trained under his guidance held him out as the genuine article who didn't wince about flying actual, and he wasn't a kid building time before going on to the airlines. (I wanted to minimize my chances of having to switch instructors mid-curriculum.)

Well, they were right. David was not a kid. He was fit (running-miles-a-day-fit) and a super-sharp older guy with the right look.

Three questions

So one hot May afternoon, my new CFII gets into the cockpit of the 172 for our first IFR lesson and sees me squeezing my leg with the elastic to fasten the Velcro on my kneeboard and asks three questions: "What the hell are you planning to do with that thing?" "Are you expecting to do aerobatics?" and "You are aware that the FAA will take your pilot's license from you when the surgeon cuts off that leg once the gangrene sets in?"

He had a point, of course. In addition to the VFR charts, I now needed to carry along the IFR charts and the approach plates and a lot more stuff on which to make notes. And I was supposed to be able to do so without too much drama.

David's personal lap desk was something to behold. Like him, it had seen a few laps around the track. It had weathered the best and the worse of his career to that point, and taken a nick or two along the way.

It had room to organize the IFR stuff with two clips on each side and he had fabricated a custom stopwatch holder on the upper right side. For those joining the program already in progress, it has only been in the last few years that approach timers were just "thrown in" as additional features on modern avionics. Before that, you used an actual stopwatch or the hideously difficult-to-see liquid crystal display panel clock—assuming all the LCD segments were working and it wasn't below 45 degrees F in the cockpit.

That lap desk positively reeked of Experience, Talent, Reason and Confidence. The surfaces had some scuffs; the hinge squeaked with age as it was unfolded. It had polished where he rested his forearm for countless hours, sweating through so many student attempts at erasing both he and them from this earth.

That desk told a story without a word. It said that this thing belonged to a man in whom you could place your trust.

While David carried it as a tool of his trade, I, the impressionable student, saw it almost as a talisman. If you went aloft with such a desk on your lap, your chances of coming home in one piece were certainly far better assured, for this tool had seen the beast and left it hungry. I looked on that scarred desk with what approached reverence.
Joining the club

The first thing to be done was to go over to the Sporty's catalog (it was kind of pre-Internet back then—at least, it was for me) and buy one of those flight lap desks.

Two days later, mine arrived wrapped in foam and plastic. It had much good information etched in the faces about light gun signals, Flight Watch and emergency frequencies, a compass depiction overlain with odd/even direction of flight rules, and a bunch of other stuff. The clips sprung with new-steel tension; the legends stood out in harsh relief.

It gleamed in its new and brushed aluminum state. It was perfect, and therefore completely sterile, devoid of character. If there were any statement inferred about the owner, it was that the guy in the left seat didn't necessarily know what he was doing. This unproven tool held no magic, nor did I.

In use, the lap desk proved its worth from the start. Two rubber strips kept it from sliding about, even given my preference for wearing shorts in the cockpit.

The new desk held to the promise of keeping me organized. Always there, steady, constant and useful. The IMC cockpit is a most critical place, where function outweighs other considerations. Like any good tool, it never turned in my hand to bite.

It helped get me through that difficult initial learning phase of IFR when the information comes at you as if through a fire hose. Checkride, too. (Two checkrides, actually: I failed the first with an altitude bust the DPE just couldn't in good conscience ignore—but that's another story.) It has been soldiering on ever since.

It has been more than a few years since Sporty's sold that desk. My airplane has changed to a little faster platform, and I continue to enjoy any instrument time that comes my way.

David Zeidler is retired to Florida and we speak to one another with the irregular frequency of friends on two different schedules, yet his words and encouragement are with me for every hour I have flown since we met.

A place to rest

A couple thousand-plus flight hours later, the "new" lap desk is still steadying my hand and gives me a known place on which to rest. The brushed aluminum is worn to a shine where I rest my forearm.

Nowadays, the left-side clip no longer nestles a series of charts and carefully sequenced approach plates; instead, an iPad now sits where the paper used to reside. It was a satisfying and powerfully happy moment when I realized the lap desk would survive the iPad Revolution.

So, the old tool now cradles the modern chart display and the spiral notebook still rests on the right side. I put down a deposit on an Avidyne IFD540 Nav/Com that should be ready this year. That radio shows the facility name you've got dialed in, so one day soon my spiral notebook will have a little more room between the entries.

The disjointed notations in the spiral book are as much a record of the flight as are the logbook entries made on the ground. A new page for every flight, with cross-country work taking up as many pages as needed. When the book is full, it gets filed. Those scribbled entries combine with the photographs, and the memories of people and places visited to bring the flights of the past back to life.

It has a few nicks, and the lettering is getting faded with time. My lap desk has been across our country end to end, north to south, many times. It knows me, it knows shadow and light, having now seen hundreds of sunsets and sunrises from the cockpit.

I can't answer the question of trust, but the hinge is starting to squeak.

Jeffrey Chipetine is an instrument-rated private pilot with 2,500-plus hours, flying for 12-plus years. Chipetine owns a 1979 Cessna R182. He boasts no aviation awards, certificates of achievement or acclaim. Despite his skill set, he manages to arrive at his destinations and return home. His sole qualification? He managed on a single occasion to demonstrate the minimal standards to pass an FAA PP-Instrument checkride. Send questions or comments to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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